When I meet with Sello Maake ka Ncube at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, it is with the idea that we will chat about his upcoming reunion with Vanessa Cooke, as he once again steps into the role of Can Themba in House of Truth.
However, when you have the opportunity to chat to one of South Africa’s most respected actors, you take the opportunity to delve into something else other than just the subject matter at hand. This presented the chance to discuss, among other things, the state of South African theatre today.
To put things into context, Ka Ncube’s brand has come to be associated with some of the biggest productions on television and stage, and it was at some point rumored that he is among the top three earning actors in the country.
While I’m only moderately interested in the latter, what became more appealing to pick his brains about was what he thought could get people flocking to theatres once again.
When the gap in conversation presents itself, I ask him what he makes of the state of the stage, and whether we’re telling the stories that matter to South Africans. He seems to take a minor pause to mull over the question I’ve posed to him.
Sello Maake Ka-Ncube in The House of Truth. Picture: Itumeleng English/ANA
“I think the stories are there. At times I find we lack the expertise to bring them to life. You can tell a story, but it depends whether you have the tools. We don’t have good writers, good playwrights,” he said.
Ka Ncube believes that this ultimately leads to actors being starved of quality roles and the absence of quality performances.
“We’ve got to teach young people to write. I am saddened by the state of the theatre at the moment. I mean it’s been, what? Twenty-three years of the new dispensation and I am finding the landscape more barren than it was before,” he said.
Ka Ncube added, though, that he believes the primary issue is not money.
“We normally blame the government. The government has been giving out money. The money is there. People have been funded to produce plays and whatever but we suffer from the Sassa (South Africa Social Securtiy Agency) mentality; we want to thrive on grants,” he explained.
Ka Ncube’s treatment for this lull in captivating theatre content is that with the commitment to produce high-quality theatre content, must come the entrepreneurial spirit to generate the necessary income from the projects. It must be business.
“In about 2013 or 2014, I used to go to business seminars, purely out of curiosity. I realised they don’t regard what we do as business. Which is odd, because artists have a deep entrepreneurial spirit.
“One of the things you’ll hear being offered as advice in the business world is that you must never give up. Always keep trying. No one keeps trying and trying like an artist.
“So, basically, if you nurture that trying spirit with a little business acumen, you have an entrepreneur in the making.”
He recalls some of the interactions he’s had with potential business people with a mischievous smile: “I mean, I had conversations where people recognised me from the work that I’d done, mainly as Archie (Moroka, a character from Generations that Ka Ncube played for over 10 years) and, inevitably, I get asked: ‘Oh, so you’re in business?’ and I respond: ‘Yes.’ ‘What kind?’ I normally respond: ‘Showbusiness,’” he said with a laugh.
“Showbusiness is not seen as show business. And I don’t blame them. We are welfare entrepreneurs.
“We have to move away from this. Once you’ve been given something to do, think of ways for it to generate an income.
“We often believe that serious entertainment cannot be commercial, but it can be.
“Thereafter you can produce your serious, self-indulgent work. We just have to be smart about it.”
While this is one man’s thoughts on an industry, it does, however, speak of the need to shift theatre into the consciousness of ordinary South Africans and to get the theatre culture of the country to the level of vibrancy that it once enjoyed.